This is a repost from my travel blog.
As I was looking around my new home, thinking what else it needs to be both functional and beautiful, I was struck how decorating a home is similar to writing a book. In both cases you start with the big necessary things, like a bed or a heroine, then layer on interest in the form of decorative items and colorful side characters until you have something that supports what you want to do in the space or story and feels rounded and real. Don’t believe me? Read on.
The purpose of the room is the genre
When you start decorating a room, you first have to think about what the room will be used for, and what kind of activities will happen there. This decides what kind of furniture is needed in that room. A bedroom requires a bed, a bedside table and perhaps a dresser, whereas the living room needs seating, a TV and possibly a dining table. You may also decide on a style, like Art Deco or mid century modern, that helps you find the right pieces to suit your taste.
Likewise, when you start writing a book, you have a story idea or at least an idea what kind of a book you want to write. The genre could be a romance, fantasy, a horror story, or in my case, a murder mystery. Like with a room and its furniture, the genre generally dictates the kind of characters that live in that world – an heiress, a wizard, a monster, or an amateur sleuth.
Rooms may have several functions, and there may be overlap in literary genres. A bedroom may have a bathtub, a fantasy novel may also be a detective story. But, you have to get the basics right first.
The furniture is the characters
These are the big pieces: the bed, wardrobe, and side table, or the sofa, coffee table and TV. You pick these first as they are usually the biggest pieces and determine the flow in the room. It’s as if the furniture have a conversation: the coffee table needs to be close to the sofa, but not block the main passage ways through the room. The wardrobe needs to be far enough from the bed and other pieces of furniture so that you can still open its doors.
As I mention above, the genre defines what kind of characters are needed. A murder mystery needs a detective, a murderer and a victim. Additionally, there needs to be a large enough cast of characters so that there are multiple people as credible suspects, but not too many or the story will drag on and on. The conversations between the people and the clash between the personalities is what makes the story. In a great murder mystery each suspect could be the murderer, with motive, means and/or opportunity to commit the murder.
The room is the setting
The room can be cramped or cavernous, a featureless box or one with high ceilings, crown mouldings and victorian fireplaces. The room’s dimensions, shape and the locations of the windows and doorways can help or hinder with the decorating decisions. The bed has to go there, because the other walls have windows or an awkward fireplace.
The story setting is equally important. Unlike with a house or an apartment you are decorating, where you are often hampered by the physical limitations of the rooms, in a story the setting can be anything you want it to be. The setting supports the story in meaningful ways. You can’t write a gothic horror story which is set in a modern building, or at least it would be very difficult to create the kind of atmosphere that a dilapidated gothic mansion with creaky floors and doors that open mysteriously would give.
The walls and curtains define the limits of the room, while windows and doors bring glimpses of the outside world. If the view from the window is disappointing, a nice set of curtains will block it out. The setting necessarily limits the scope of the story as well. But no story happens in a vacuum, so the outside world comes into the story through characters’ backstory or e.g. overheard news.
The outside world is the context of the story. If the story is a light hearted cozy mystery, for example, political upheavals or terrorist attacks need to be kept at minimum. Not only will they distract but also bring the imperfect world into the escapist story. But political machinations are the bread and butter of a spy novel, for example. The context should include only enough of the outside world as the plot needs.
Decorative items add color and depth
A room with only the necessary furniture pieces may be functional but it will look bare. Soft rugs on the floor, curtains and pillows will soften the hard walls and floors and bring color into the room. Vases, house plants, art works and other decorative items reveal something of the character of the inhabitants.
If a room is described just as “a 3 x 4 meter room with a sofa, a coffee table, a side table, a floor lamp, a TV stand with a TV and curtains”, you would have little idea how it actually looked like. But if I told you that the sofa was a burgundy Chesterfield with a wonky leg, the coffee table was made of a repurposed door propped up on rust red bricks, or the TV stand was an IKEA Lack bookcase turned on its side, you could immediately imagine them and perhaps guess a little what kind of people live there.
Likewise, a story with only the basic narrative thrust would be clinical and brief. Compare: “Boy meets girl, their families object and they die tragically” with Romeo and Juliet as written by Shakespeare. Or “Boy finds out he’s a wizard and saves the world” with the glory that is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.
The equivalent of decorative items in a story might be interesting side characters, red herring story lines, and descriptions of scenery, the weather and the flaming red hair of our heroine. While physical characteristics should not reveal character (bad people are not necessarily ugly and pretty people are not always nice), detailed descriptions make it easier for the reader to dive into the story. The sleuth’s skills solve the mystery, her personality meshing or clashing with the suspects until she teases out their motivations. And it is because who or what the victim was that they were killed.
Lighting is the focus
So the stage is set, the characters are in place, appropriately dressed, and the story can begin.
In decorating, the lighting is important to illuminate the features you want noticed, to shine a light on your reading, writing, or cooking. A fireplace will bring warmth and a flickering light on a cold winter night and leave cozy shadowy nooks and crannies.
In a story, the editing process decides what needs to be included and excluded. There is a reason why characters seldom go to the toilet, visit the dentist, or scrub the floors: unless these are crucial to the story, they are just bringing the story to a halt. In a murder mystery in particular, there must be enough clues that a clever reader can work it out themselves, but not too many so that the solution is too easy.
And there you have it, the main ingredients of a book. You have the type of book you are writing, the main and supporting characters, the setting, the quirky details and the focus. All it needs now is a plot.
And time to write the book.
Photo by alex.shultz